A Chamber Music Series Concert Presented by Members of the Nashville Symphony

Modern Masterpieces for Brass

Select members of the Nashville Symphony presented ‘Modern Masterpieces for Brass’ at Schermerhorn Symphony Center on Wednesday, March 8, 6:00 p.m. This free event was offered as part of the Chamber Music Series and featured the following Nashville Symphony musicians:

Alec Blazek, trumpet
William Leathers, trumpet
Patrick Walle, horn
Paul Jenkins, trombone
Gilbert Long, tuba

Audience members were asked to sit in the center orchestra section nearest the stage as space allowed. On stage were chairs, stands, and percussion equipment that remained from an earlier rehearsal; however, the front part of the stage was lowered and cleared, except for a closed quintet seating schematic. A lighting plot brought additional focus to what would become the performance area.

Phillip Ducreay, Education and Community Engagement Program Manager, opened the concert by welcoming attendees and previewing upcoming performances by the Nashville Symphony. Even though it is understood that the Chamber Music Series falls within Ducreay’s purview, this commercial for future subscriptions and ticket sales seemed to somewhat distract from the music about to be offered – perhaps that was the price of admission to this free performance.

Of this series, the Nashville Symphony suggests the following on the organization’s website:

The Nashville Symphony Chamber Music Series provides an informal and interactive concert-going experience. With programming developed by members of the orchestra, this FREE evening of music and conversation is a wonderful way to get to your Nashville Symphony musicians and explore the history and artistry behind the music.

The intent behind such a series is commended and very much appreciated. I am not convinced that the aim of this series is being fully realized, or that such an ambitious endeavor is possible within a sixty-minute timetable. What made this concert informal – a slightly earlier downbeat, musicians wearing all black instead of concert black, general seating? A handful of audience members asking questions of the musicians didn’t seem like much of a conversation, although the audience was learning a few personal facts about the musicians during this portion of the event. Surely there is more that could be done if an objective is to actually, “. . . get to [our] Nashville Symphony musicians.” The ensemble entered from backstage, performed, and left, never once breaking the proscenium.

While the format and its execution of this performance may leave questions, the artistry did not. Works written by five living composers were featured:

Jennifer Higdon
Fanfare Quintet (2002)

David Sampson
Morning Music (1982)

Caleb Hudson
White Rose Energy (2016)

Kenneth Amis
Bell Tone’s Ring (1999)

Eric Ewazen
Colchester Fantasy (1987)

The program offered a broad emotional landscape and hinted at the awesome power of the medium to serve as a mirror for societal, political, and religious victories and shortcomings alike. This narrative of awareness was introduced on the printed program, too, with the following acknowledgement:

We acknowledge that Greater Nashville was originally home to the Yuchi people, the Shawnee people, and the Eastern Cherokee people, who lived on this land for thousands of years and countless generations before they were forcibly moved by colonization and the government. We would like to emphasize that despite this history, there are still members of these communities that live in Nashville today. The legacy of the enslaved individuals who helped build the city and the neighborhood we know today is also not forgotten. We recognize their strength and resilience through colonialism, white supremacy, and detrimental policies. To directly make an impact, we recommend that you donate to the Native American Indian Association of Tennessee at naiatn.org/donate.

This acknowledgement took up a quarter of the printed program, but it was never directly referenced. It is undecided whether this strengthens the gesture or offers the position, however rightly justified, similarly to an act of performative governance.

Of the works performed, David Sampson’s Morning Music left quite an imprint. Trumpeter Alec Blazek was the first member of the ensemble to address the audience and introduce a piece on the program – perhaps fitting as it was later acknowledged that the success of the concert owned much to Blazek’s administrative acumen of behalf of the group. Sampson writes the following about his piece:

Alec Blazek

Morning Music for brass quintet was written during the summer of 1986 for the American Brass Quintet. It is a sequel to a previous work of mine titled In Memoriam: W.E.S. for woodwind quintet written in 1981 and premiered by the Dorian Wind Quintet. The subject of that piece was the murder of my brother, William Evan Sampson, by the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazis in 1979. Morning Music deals with my thoughts and feelings seven years later. As you will hear, the anguish over the death is as intense as ever, but strength and hope will gradually emerge from the despair. The work is one movement with clearly delineated sections ending with a fast-paced coda. I have dedicated Morning Music to my mother, Betty Sampson, whose optimism and resiliency have been an inspiration to me.

Each section of the work was expertly navigated by the ensemble. Hocketed intricacies throughout showcased impressive musicianship. The work opens with complex intervallic sequences written, at first, for solo tuba, that proved to be tamed by Gilbert Long. William Leathers, who played Trumpet 2 for this selection, aligned magically with trombonist Paul Jenkins in moments of repose. Leathers’ driving articulated pulsations in contrasting sections confronted the unimageable horrors through which the composer must have been attempting to deal with the unnecessary loss of his brother.

The contributions of Patrick Walle must not be overlooked. The horn was asked at times to battle a pair of trumpets, to extend the range of the trombone, and to make epic declarations as horns have been accustomed to do, among other feats, all within only just this one piece. There were moments when Walle’s placement within the seating schematic appeared to swallow his contributions more than was desired. I would be curious to hear another performance of Morning Music with Walle’s bell directed more towards the audience.

Patrick Walle

The composite of such an ensemble presumably should be greater than its parts. That proved true for this ensemble, but Alec Blazek’s trumpet playing needs recognized for being equally intoxicating and transporting. Blazek’s clear tone, nuanced articulation, and musicality can camouflage itself when serving in a supportive role, as well as lead style when charged to do so by the score. A perfect example of this dichotomy of role was highlighted by an ostinato figure that began a new section of David Sampson’s Morning Music. Blazek introduced the figure with authority before providing space in the sonic landscape for other voices within the ensemble to continue to develop the work’s texture.

Before the accelerating coda, which brings Morning Music to its conclusion, one musician had technical difficulties with their foot pedal; this pedal is used in tandem with an electronic tablet to advance one’s in place in a piece instead of using physical copies of music. I don’t reference this moment to embarrass the group, but rather to praise their professionalism and seemingly calm demeanor. Whether it was a malfunction or a Bluetooth connectivity issue, the music took a slightly extended pause, after which a discreet gesture was given by the affected musician to proceed to the next group entrance. Without fail all five musicians resumed and finished with a continued conviction.

Many successes could be cited from the other four pieces on the program and the surprise encore. For an ensemble that operates in an ad hoc capacity, it might be expected for there to be a lack of flexibility or cohesion, but this performance suggests quite the opposite. The approach to playing was similarly appreciated. The audience wasn’t met with five orchestral jocks playing at chamber music. The offerings were elevated and paced. I hope that Nashville realizes how fortunate it is to host a music organization of this caliber. Better yet, I hope that Nashville will support this musical organization and show that it is both appreciative and deserving of its artistry.

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